Judge says CUNY student senate is public body

Ruling invalidates use of secret ballots in officer elections

NEW YORK -- A state court judge ruled in July that the City University of New York's University Student Senate violated the state's open-meetings and freedom-of-information laws by electing officers and conducting votes by secret ballot.

State Supreme Court Justice William J. Davis' ruling declared the student senate to be a public body under New York's open-meetings laws and an agency under the state's freedom of information laws because the USS elects an ex-officio member of the school's board of trustees, distributes student activities fees and selects recipients of scholarships funded by public money.

The USS is a student government body with elected delegates from all CUNY schools. It receives funding from a mandatory student fee of 85 cents per student each semester.

In October of 1999, the USS held its annual election, choosing a chair and six officers by a secret ballot vote, with no record kept of how each delegate voted.

Two students, both student journalists at CUNY schools, filed suit, claiming that the votes cast by each delegate were "of great interest to CUNY students in general, who have a right to know the vote of their elected representatives, and student journalists in particular, who have a special interest in being able to report to their fellow students how the USS delegates voted."

The school had argued that the student senate was not a public body required to comply with state open-meetings laws, which define a public body as an entity that requires a quorum to conduct public business, consists of two or more members and performs a governmental function for the state.

Under state regulations, any agency -- defined as any state or government entity performing a governmental function-is also required to comply with the freedom of information law.

After examining the student senate's constitution and bylaws, Davis ruled that because the USS is responsible for allocating student activity fees-which are mandatory, collected by the state and therefore considered public funds -- it is considered to be performing a governmental function for the purposes of state open meetings and freedom of information laws. Both laws prohibit secret ballot elections.

Fall 2000, reports